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The Pursuit of Beauty

I'm M.C.A. Hogarth, author and artist. I write fiction (science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc), nonfiction (mostly about business and parenthood) and draw pictures, mostly of dragons, elves and people in beautiful clothes. I am also currently (as of July 2015) serving as the Vice President of SFWA. Below you can see some of what I'm doing currently, and check up on my status.

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     The Nebula Awards Weekend 2016
     Worldcon 2016

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One cannot go to Italy without visiting wine country. Accordingly, on one of our free days a driver hired by the tour company picked us up and took us out to Umbria, to the town of Orvieto which perches on a mountain. But a very polite mountain, a small mountain, a jaguar-approved mountain. It can't have been very tall because I had no trouble breathing; looking it up, I see it's all of 1100ish feet above sea level. Just this "born below sea level" jaguar's speed.

I remember Orvieto from my first trip to Italy. What I didn't remember then was how the road winding up to the ancient mountain town was clotted with run-down gambling places, motels, shops, and apartments. There's no room on the summit itself for expansion, so all this ugly modern stuff has been relegated to the base of the mountain. Very much for the best, I think, though this is a repeating theme wherever I go in Europe, this lack of space. No doubt in the Northeastern US, where cities are also old, the same issues re-occur. I was born to roomier places, and it remains a curiosity to me, that you might not be able to expand.

Orvieto has a cathedral!

I know, you're so surprised.


But it is lovely and worth looking at because of its lovely styling: built from alternating types of stone, basalt and marble, for their colors. It's a striking piece of work and so intensely carved, in every cranny of the facade, that you could stand there for hours and wonder how it was done, finding new little spirals and leaves and arabesques. And like other such cathedrals, it's in use; when we were visiting there was a service going on in one of the transepts. Unlike St. Peter's, though, this cathedral was actually quiet enough that I could imagine concentrating on the service, if I lived here. It echoed, though: it was enormous, and so empty.

I am eternally fascinated by the interruption of pragmatism into art. Many of the columns were wearing these girdling bands for strength. One of them had six!

If you want the definition of a charming town, this is the town you want. Venice was lovely, but Venice was wet. The water could smell of awful things. It formed mold on every conceivable surface it touched. When you escaped the canals, it hung in the air as a sticky humidity, and seemed to cling even in the alleys. I can't be charmed by mildew. I find myself thinking of health hazards, of slippery stones and asthma attacks.


But Orvieto... you step out into it and the breeze on the mountain is fresh and smells of growing things. It is warm and dry. It makes you want to break out singing like a character in a musical. The alleys here really are charming, and unlike Venice, there are flowering trees and plants.


The streets wind up and down, so that you can stand on them and look down on the roofs of three story buildings, whose balconies open through gates onto the street level where you're standing. It gives a delightful illusion that you are capable of living in three dimensions, like a bird.

And then there are the views.

I wish I could describe the smell of the air to you. The breeze ruffling your hair, touching your face, bringing with it stories of all the fields it had touched. Of the distant columnar pines, the ripening crops, the sun-warmed grass.


This person's house was next to this overlook. The only way I could suppress my envy was by thinking that it would be rough to have a medical emergency requiring cutting-edge surgery in a town this small.

Walking back to the Duomo, we peeked into various little corners. There was always something worth seeing, like this unexpected plaza, hidden behind a door.

On the way to the car, I found another stunning view. Interestingly, this one is above the exit of one of the many catacombs riddling the soft rock beneath Orvieto. These date back to Etruscan times, apparently, and are full of all sorts of bizarre secrets. My sister, cheerfully descending into them for an hour+ tour, returned with tales of things like dovecotes, kept underground so that people in hiding there would have something to eat while waiting out their sieges. I am not a huge fan of small spaces (or underground ones), so I let her regale me with those stories.

After eating at a little trattoria, we pile back into the van for our trip to a private winery, found by our driver and chosen because it specializes in Orvieto's whites and is more secluded than those typically visited by tourists.

On the way there I catch one shot of Orvieto, seen through the van window. Then we are for the vineyards.


Beautiful rows of vines!

I have been to vineyards in California and even Florida, so I'm acquainted with the way these things work. But I have yet to run into an American winery that has buildings like this visible in the back:

The views, as with everything in Umbria so far, are tremendous.

But we are here for the wine, not just the views! So we follow our host through his facility. He is a German whose parents bought the property for cheap, as it had been left to seed. He has taken up their work of returning it to productivity, and to the task of making the most delicate and complex of whites that he can. Though he also makes a rose and a couple of reds, just to round out his product line. It is fascinating to listen to this practical man with his very-foreign-to-the-region accent speak with reserved reverence of the land and the grapes and the wine that results. I love this story, the mishmash of cultures that seems completely natural because it is based in something older than any civilization. He loves the land. What could be more natural? Land is older than any city, and yet it leaves you more room to be yourself than any human society.

That feeling maintains throughout our entire visit there. This sense that it's easier to be... normal. There are no pressures. The soil and the air and the growing things make us all equal. They're bigger than us, so what need do we have for awkwardness?


It is not enough, though, that we must have delicious wine. It must be aged in caves that were present before the property was built. "Probably made by the Etruscans," our host says. "There are signs. We have not asked anyone to verify this, of course, or we would not be storing wine in it, and I would not be living here anymore!"

It's a cool, moist place, and you walk into it straight out of the kitchen. It is the most surreal experience. Turn your head one way: bright sunny kitchen, hardwood floors, pretty table with painted chairs and a bowl full of corks. Turn your head the other: dirt-hewn trench into a short, underground chamber.

But then it is time for the tasting. Outdoors, at a table beneath a pavilion, in the warm mountain sun. Twist my arm, here.

You don't even have to like alcohol to want to sit there. Daughter certainly didn't mind. (Though admittedly, the bowls of little crunchy bread-like pasta-shaped things helped.)

We let her try the wine. As expected, she disliked most of them. We talked, the handful of us, about alcohol and the customs around children's use of it. Our host, like my parents, grew up sipping at the table with the adults. This is also what I consider normal. It's nice to be somewhere I don't feel like I'm committing a grave sin by letting Child try some sangria, now and then.

The wine is superlative. Divine. I prefer whites, and I loved the white from the trattoria, a house white that nevertheless was an Orvieto white, and Orvieto is esteemed for its whites. But this...! This was revelatory. We try a sparkling rose, two whites, and two reds, and I keep coming back to those whites. They are indescribably good. So delicate. I taste them and smell the breeze off the nearby grass and feel the sunlight and it's all of one piece. This is where this came from. You taste it, and every pore knows it.

Our host doesn't have an American distributor yet. We order a case and have it delivered. "We'll use it for special occasions," we say. "As long as you drink it within a year," the man says. "Well, then," we say. "Having it is the special occasion."

It is time then to go back to Rome. I regret this mightily. I don't want to leave the enlivening greenness of Umbria. On the way, though, our driver stops at Montefalco, solely so he can pause at this overlook and show us Lake Trasimeno.

This is the Italy I had no idea I'd needed to see. Not that the works of man are meaningless, because they mean everything, and while history doesn't mark me much, art is food for me. But this stunning countryside was just unearthly. That people could live here. Where I live, you fight the environment outside, you don't embrace it. The people who like that kind of interaction with the natural world might find a great deal to love about Florida, but most of us want to keep it at arm's length.

Our driver, telling us that he has a summer home in Montefalco, where for two months a year he doesn't work, period... I think, "How does he afford that life, and how can I have it?" And I look outside the windows of the van and I marvel. This is riches.

But return we did to Rome. Our next and last major stop: Florence, where I complete my artistic pilgrimage.

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A moment's digression from the travelogue, for some pictures done while in the hotel. Most of the time I was too tired to draw or take notes, but that first night in Rome I had some time, and much inspiration from the Venetian concert.

Eldritch fashion meets dragons! Fun to do.

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Current Mood: amused amused

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We move on, as perhaps we must, to the Eternal City.

As a prefatory remark, I'll say that I love Ancient Rome. The Greeks had high-minded ideals for which I admired them as a youth, studying their culture... but it was Roman pragmatism that I found most affecting. I loved the brazen audacity of their roads, their aqueducts, the way they absorbed other cultures by allowing them to keep enough of their identity to still feel like themselves, while also suddenly being Roman. I was aware, of course, that marching around annexing other countries was pretty horribad, but then, they marched around and brought technology in their wake. The Roman trains ran on time; there's a kind of magnetism to that kind of competence. I'm aware of their many flaws (and in fact studied them at length, for fun!), but I remain enamored of Ancient Rome. Besides, Latin is a fun language, and spawned so many others.

So, I expected to love Rome. I faintly remembered loving Rome before.

I am not sure what I think of Rome now.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. First, the trip from Venice.

Do I say now that I know nothing about trains? I know nothing about trains. About trains, about rails, about high-speed rails, about subways... all these things are alien to me. I think I've spent a handful of consecutive days in my life on these forms of transportation. The high-speed rail trip from Venice (over the bridge in a flash!) to Rome was fantastic. We traveled business class in a roomy coach with enormous windows, between 50 and 150 mph, and in such astonishing silence. I spent much of the four hours staring out at the countryside, marveling. How much more travel I would do if I could do it by train! But trains that connect cities like this are... kind of not a thing in America. I enjoyed it while I could.

Unlike Venice, there's a lot more vegetation in Rome. Which is good, because Rome also has something like five million cars? And they all run on diesel down streets so tiny and old Roman emperors used to walk down them. Driving looks more like a video game than like anything safe or sensible. I took several taxis, one van, and two buses while I was in Rome and overwhelmingly what I kept thinking was "this city has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Since the times when you either walked or rode an animal. These streets. What would the Ancient Romans think?"

(They would probably applaud the technology, and decry Italy's current world status. Knowing Ancient Rome.)

But anyway. Our first day we wandered a little. Our hotel was near Hadrian's Tomb, a short walk from the Vatican.


We didn't walk very far that day. Just around the tomb, which had an impressive moat (look at the bricks!), toward the Aelian Bridge, where I photographed an angel with a selfie-stick. The person carving that obviously had a vision of the distant future and did his best to interpret it through the lens of current artifacts.

The following day we had our whirlwind partial-day tour of the Vatican and the ruins.


Waiting in line at the Vatican Museum (again more tree photos, this time up the walls). Supposedly the two men on top of the door there are Raphael and Michelangelo, so I photographed them because... well. Renaissance artist heroes, yes? I somehow doubt Michelangelo was that pretty, though; all the existing literature describes him as an ugly man with a bad attitude, unlike Raphael, who was purportedly a charming golden beauty much beloved by everyone who saw him.

My mother arranged this trip through a travel guide, who contracted with a tour company to offer us some services while we were abroad. It wasn't a fully-guided tour—we had a lot of time to ourselves in every city—but we did have optional packages like the Vivaldi concert in Venice, and a half-day tour in Rome and Venice. It is because of this tour company that we made it into some of these places, because tour companies get special appointments and use different lines from mere mortals who think they can walk into the Vatican Museum. ("One cannot simply WALK. Into the Vatican museum. One must wait for four hours.") (No, not kidding. 25,000 people a DAY.)

I didn't love the tours, which were often super-fast-paced and grueling. But the ability to walk past the super-long lines of people waiting to get in was really, really, really welcome.


A Viking boat, which I took a quick photo of before being hustled upstairs. There! The famous Dome of the basilica! Slaved over by so many architects! I stared at it for a long time, and fortunately had the time to do so as our tour group collected. There are many stories that hint at the complex art culture of the Renaissance, with its interlocking circles of aristocratic and theocratic patronage, its warring artists, the styles burgeoning and flourishing and expiring or evolving. The dome's history is an interesting one, involving Michelangelo redesigning Bramante's handiwork. It's complicated. One senses, briefly, the personalities involved, and the stakes. Who will be the one to erect the cupola over the sacred basilica??

There was a great deal to see in that museum and we passed it all. I didn't mind. There was only one thing I cared about. I felt a brief pang for all the works of art that I missed and a hunger for the one in front of me.


We passed through several interesting halls. This was my favorite though: a long scrolling room of painted maps of different regions of Italy. I loved it for its almost cartoonish use of color and stylization, as I was looking at a Civilization II map. But I found the idea fantastic. If you have no satellite to tell you exactly what your country looks like (the one you're in charge of), what better way to visualize it than to paint it large?

While we were moving through this room, two women started setting up to do restoration/maintenance on the paintings. I liked this glimpse, and the way it abruptly populated in my imagination a team of people doing nothing but making sure these treasures of our past are preserved for all those who want to process past and see them. One of the people in our tour group made me feel that very strongly: a photographer from Alabama with a comfortingly Southern accent and an enormous camera, who had an unerring eye for unexpected beauty in unseen corners and a large-hearted wonder for this evidence of a past world. I enjoyed chatting with her; artists are a universal breed and we share a language, no matter where we come from.

Here, I have no photographs, because from this long succession of halls we finally passed into the Sistine Chapel, where photography is not permitted (nor hats or loud noises).

This was my place of pilgrimage.

When I first saw the Sistine Ceiling it had not been restored. Michelangelo had already captured my heart: a very unlikely hero for a girl who preferred her art slim and ethereal, given his love of mass and weight. But it's that thickness and solidity, contrasted against the eternal striving for the divine, that I think works so strongly on my heart. Here was a man, a very normal, very human man, a grouchy one and an ugly one, who nevertheless saw his art as a form of worship of God. Who lived to a ripe old age, never ceased to labor at that work, struggled to take care of his family, loved deeply and yet loved art first, but balanced all these things with his responsibilities. Who fought with Popes because he knew best how to magnify God and would they please let him sculpt well, fine. If he must paint, he will. But they must promise him sculpture commissions after! And his painting is incapable of lying: he was still sculpting, just with paint, not marble. There was an integrity in everything he did, no matter how flawed.

And here I was, in the restored chapel, and I am not ashamed to say I wept.

After this, the Basilica itself was anticlimactic. But I wanted to see the Pieta, which I had not seen since I was nine.

And I did. How sad and strange to find it behind a wall! It wasn't when I was there last. Why must people deface things? I find it hard to understand this motivation. The separation between me and Mary and her son felt too harsh. I couldn't connect with the sculpture... I could only connect with the memory of the violence that had necessitated its protection, and mourn that history repeats itself over and over, in human nature.


We had to walk to get to the Pieta, of course, which is just inside St. Peter's. This is an edifice. There's no other word for a building this enormous and this... well, magnificent. Imposing. It's like something out of an epic movie, but real. Someone built this and hauled all the stones out and carved it and set it up. Astonishing.


The inside is, of course, in keeping with the outside. Those letters are five feet tall when you stand next to them. There were people praying before the baldacchino, that bronze pavilion-like thing there.

This is, staggeringly enough, a working church, like so many of the other churches that are also tourist destinations. This little side chapel, being set-up as we watched, was for weddings. There was also one for baptisms. I'm not sure I'd be capable of the detachment necessary to have a sacrament performed for me while hundreds of thousands of tourists filed past and gawked.

The outside of the Basilica, seen as I was leaving it. An unbelievable piece of work.

From the Renaissance we traveled back in time through the present, amid all the cars, to the Arch of Constantine and the Coliseum.

Please try to imagine carving all these tiny figures on this enormous monument. I can't even.

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What to say about the Coliseum? I find myself irreverently thinking of the Elton John song. I'm still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah. You certainly are, Coliseum.

But I am an artist with the brain of a writer and what struck me most while I was there was this juxtaposition of modern technology and ancient masonry. This is the wiring that leads to the lights/electricity for the gift shop below.

And then there was food. We ate three times at this little family-owned diner. I have more to say about the food in Italy, but... later. I just liked this picture for its revelation about how narrow and small everything is. You don't knock down ancient walls just to make something big enough to suit modern tastes.

Amusingly, my world follows me, even when I'm on vacation.

Rome was... big. Too big for me. It smelled of pollution and was crowded like woah, and the constant phasing in and out of "timezones" was disorienting. Here's this ruin from thousands of years ago, and there are cars whizzing past it! And a few blocks away, a Renaissance wonder! Let's keep walking, who knows what era of history we'll end up in? I didn't know who I was, surrounded by so many people I might have been, and by the people around me who seemed blasé about their surroundings. This place was just home for them: to me it was a city that had been a city for so long I didn't know how to live in it. It had room for a thousand thousand thousand million faceless masses, and will probably have that room for centuries to come. It is an eternal city, and I have discovered I am not a city girl.

Next up: Umbria, Orvieto, and wine.

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This issue comes up often enough that I think having a permanent post about it would be good. Here it is then: "Why does Jaguar write so many cliffhangers! It's annoying!"

I feel your pain, my readers. I, too, dislike cliffhangers. (Actually, I hate them.) But as Business Manager Jaguar implies, this is an economic issue, not an artistic one... or rather, a place where art and practical reality collide, and art loses.

Physical books have a presence. We know this because when we rhapsodize about them, it's what we talk about: their weight, their heft, their smell, the sight of them, the sound of the pages whispering as we ruffle them. But in particular, I want to talk about weight, because this is a primary point of interaction between the reader and the material. The weight of a book will influence how long you want to hold the book, how comfortable you are while reading it, and the ability of the book—the physical object—to disappear and the story to seem to form in your head without aid. If the book is too large or too heavy, you will get dragged out of the story when your wrists or arms start complaining. Likewise, if the book is too small, eyestrain will pull you away.

If the issue is grossly obvious, you will put the book down and have a conscious discussion with yourself about whether you want to continue reading. But if it's subtle, if it's just heavy enough to make your hands ache, but not heavy enough to notice consciously, then your perception of the story alters. It becomes vaguely burdensome without your knowing why. The association between 'uncomfortable' and 'the story' will form in the reader's head, and they probably won't realize the connection. They'll just think 'eh, I never finished that book. I didn't really connect with it.'

Can you imagine prejudicing your reader against your story by accident that way? Marketer Jaguar cries in her sangria at the thought.

Here, then, is the takeaway: If you write big stories, stories that take hundreds of pages to unravel, you will quickly run into the problem that they don't fit into a comfortable-sized print book.

What do you do, then?

Some publishers handle this by decreasing the font size and the whitespace of the layout. You can squeeze a lot of text into a "four-hundred page" book if you mess with those variables. For a while, in fact, this is what I did in order to make my books more handy. But I had one reader tell me one day, "I really wish you would make the font bigger on your print books. I find them hard to read." And seeing that comment, a slew of people jumped on-board, saying they agreed, and could I please make the fonts larger? Businessperson that I am, my response to that was to poll my audience. Overwhelmingly, the response I got was that while smaller fonts were 'prettier', people really just wanted things that were easier to read, and in fact their comfort zone with fonts was enormously larger than mine (12 to 14 points, rather than the 10 to 11 I think is elegant).

When the majority of your customers ask for something, it is wise to listen. I made the font size bigger, and the whitespace as well.

This left me with a new problem, though. Enlarging the font and whitespace for readability ballooned the page count to the point where holding the books was painful. I tried increasing the trim size (the dimensions) of the books; this is why Spots the Space Marine is a whopping 10"x7". But large books are equally difficult to handle, and the Spots doorstopper is so big that I wonder if anyone, receiving it, ever reads it more than once.

The cost of books with that many pages is also... let's just call it 'difficult to achieve a profit on while keeping the cost reasonable.'

So here's the rock and the hard place: my choice is to fit an entire story into a single package and have it be impossible to read and uncomfortable to hold, or to break up a story into bits that might not have satisfactory endings. If you've read commercial series fiction, you know the choice that publishers have historically made: they chop the books up. (Lord of the Rings is a famous example.) Despite hating cliffhangers with a passion, I too found myself making the same choice, and consoling myself that at least I wrote fast enough that my readers wouldn't have to wait long for the conclusion of the story.

But wait! you say. E-books aren't affected by length at all! Why don't you break up the story into pieces for the print books, but have the e-book sold as a single story?

Would that I could! But unfortunately, when you post books for sale, they're linked to their various editions. This is not just a computer/sales/data issue, but a reader issue. Say you're a reader who read the (enormous uncut) e-book version of The Godkin Saga, a story that was cut into two volumes, Flight of the Godkin Griffin and The Godson's Triumph. You enjoyed that book and want the print book because you'd like to see the illustrations on paper. You go to Amazon and there's no print edition linked to the e-book edition that you bought. Confused, you search for 'godkin hogarth' and discover there are two other books with different names (Flight of the Godkin Griffin and The Godson's Triumph) with print editions but no e-book editions. Are these sequels? If you buy Flight, does that include everything you remember from The Godkin Saga? Or do you need Triumph as well? You try buying one of them, receive it, and are extremely irritated to discover that it's not the entire book. Now you feel Extremely Cheated.

Add audiobook editions to this mess. Pretty soon the reader's not sure what they've bought or whether they've read everything you've written. And you, the author, have the delightful task of untangling the confusion to readers whenever they make the attempt.

Some of you will note that not all my e-books have print editions... so why do I still cut them up? And the answer to that is that I'm planning for the day they will have print editions. It is better to save myself the headache now.


Am I happy about this compromise? Of course not. I don't like making people feel I'm trying to squeeze more money out of them, or string them along by leaving them hanging. But there's no real good choice here. And the kicker of it is, how I write is affected by my knowledge that I'm going to have to cut my stories into print book-sized chunks. If I know that I'm going to be stuck writing a cliffhanger, then I write to the cliffhanger and I try to make it as compelling as possible. Worse, knowing that I've done that I feel the pressure of completing the subsequent book far more urgently; leaving series incomplete gives me anxiety issues. Which sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but I honestly go to bed at night fretting about how soon I can deliver the resolution of a book I had to end prematurely so that the print edition wouldn't be the size of a brick. If you wonder why I dropped everything to write Book 4 of Princes' Game less than two months after I finished writing Book 3, well. Now you know.

Art is always affected by how it's transmitted. Don't let anyone tell you that media doesn't matter. Writing a serial makes for a very different kind of story than writing a novel.

So that's the long story about why I—and lots of other authors—leave you dangling. I wish it weren't so, but there it is. :,

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As their health permits, my parents have been taking the family (including my sister as well as my husband and daughter) to their favorite destinations after a lifetime spent traipsing the globe. This year, it was Italy, a country they love for its people, food, and culture. I'd been once already, when I was nine, and the impression it made on me was formative and powerful. I was a young artist: how not, when confronted with so many major works of art?

But on that first trip I had not seen Venice. "I don't care where else we go," I told my mother. "I want to see Venice at least once in my life."

How to describe such an improbable city. Is it enough to say that we flew into the airport and had to take a water taxi to our hotel?

Probably not, but it's indicative of the entire experience... especially when the water taxi didn't deliver us to the island, but sailed insouciantly into it, passing houses and canals and odd little alleys with stairs leading directly into the water.


The entire ride on that water taxi I was assailed with a sense of surreal disbelief. Had I pulled a city like this out of my imagination I would have had to work hard to sell it to readers. ("But why would anyone build a city like that? So much effort to maintain it!") And yet here it was. So many canals. So many bridges. And the multiple islands, linked by them, with their incredible narrow alleys and "roads", down which you could fit no car. Not even a Smart. I saw not one car on the islands while I was there, though I saw a million dogs. It was rare to walk into a crowd in Venice and not run into at least four or five of them.


The place is a warren. I have a visual navigation system in my head that is rarely wrong, and I'm glad I had it, because Heaven forfend you have to rely on a map. That first day we walked through that nest of alleys to the plaza of San Marco, which is as picturesque as all its thousands upon thousands upon thousands of photographs have promised. Live music at every corner, too: small ensembles, usually a piano and some strings.

There are pigeons everywhere. They are apparently the descendants of messenger pigeons long ago. Now they are nuisances, kept off of buildings with wires and spikes. No one is supposed to feed them. They tried hawks to keep their population down, and failed. The pigeons were one of the few animals I saw on my trip. I don't like them much.

The distant island, seen from the edge of the plaza.

The winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark, and tangled up in Venetian history and Venetian use of religion to express their imperial aims. I liked this photo because of the distant contrails above it: the symbol of ancient power, and above it, the symbol of modern power. We learned a great deal about the Venetian empire while we were there and it was... kind of staggering. I don't trust myself to dump that knowledge back out of my head, but my impressions were far more sinister than I would have thought. Possibly motivated by things like the little mail slots where you could inform on people anonymously...


A visit to the Doge's palace reminds me that nothing in my imagination is as ornate as human beings have created when properly motivated. I remember seeing works like this as a youth and thinking only of their glory and their beauty. Now I look at them and wonder at the economic impact, and how much it cost to employ the artists who made it, and how much time it took, and where the money and labor came from.

Our ceilings are nowhere near as ornate as the ones in these places. I always think that when I go to Europe: "I should remember to make the ceilings in my fictional palaces more complex than the floors."

Even the doors need examination. "Why are they like that?" we asked. Our tour guide's best guess: "They built these enormous arches and realized when they did so that the doors that fit into them were far larger than people-sized. So they cut people-sized holes into them." Which left me puzzling over why everything. A mistake? On purpose? Why not make the arches normal sized? Were they not imposing enough? Was there an economical reason? Practical? Were the doors too heavy? Was it a matter of heat or cold escaping/being conserved? Why!

Sometimes the reason is 'it was a mistake.' Sometimes the reason is 'no one knows anymore.' Those are interesting answers, too.


Inevitably we crossed the Bridge of Sighs to see the dungeons. Because you can't have an imperial state that actively encourages trolls to anonymously inform on one another without all the other mechanisms of power. It sounds so pretty, doesn't it? "Bridge of Sighs."

Look at the size of these steps. "We just used these to get to the chapel." *shaking head* How many slabs of marble did that take? On an island where all the stone had to be imported!

More beautiful ceilings. This is inside St. Mark's. It is a pastiche on the inside of multiple art styles throughout history. I was most taken by the fact that the floor is rumpled. The island is not the most stable place to build; many, many places where Europeans would have made beautiful cupolas have, instead, flat ceilings because of the difficulties in ensuring that stable ground. This one has survived.


Of course, there's no going to Venice without a gondola ride. I find it extremely surreal: the gondolas traverse a route, each and every once of them, and they go out in order, one after another. It makes me feel like I'm on a Disney ride. Except this is real. The buildings, though, are gorgeous and distracting. So many textures. So many places the water has eroded things... so many places people have patched it back together, made repairs. All the bridges have steps alongside them leading into—out of—the canals. There are places the alleys just end in water. Stores that have water entrances. I can't count the number of times I've been in a building, looked down the hall, and saw a canal landing outside the door. It's fascinating and bizarre. How does this city work, I wonder? I can't fathom it.


A long walk along the fringe of the island takes us over many, many bridges to one of the few park zones. It used to be that most of the island had little squares with trees and grass and a well: "campi," they were called (I remember my Latin lessons: 'campus' is a field). But the wells have been sealed over to prevent people from throwing trash into them, now that they're no longer needed for fresh water. And the grass and trees have been replaced by pavement. It's a city of concrete and brick and stone and bridges, and the single park we found was a long walk. I don't know why they would have removed those greenspaces... I had assumed, being on the water, that Venice would have a nice breeze no matter the season. But that breeze only survives until it hits the first alley. Then it's all sticky humidity and close-in skies. Some trees would have been welcome at some point. Particularly with all the dogs.

There was a cruise ship being towed in while we were walking past. It's useless to describe the size of this thing. It was shocking, taller than the towers of the buildings it was being dragged past. It was so big that passersby, noticing it and realizing it wasn't a stationery object, exclaimed, "Holy—" And we said, "Yep." And watched it go by until it had been dragged completely out of sight.


That night, I heard a sound like Medieval chant coming through the window. I flung myself out the hotel and ran to the nearest campi, and there were several men just... singing. The city was full of music, so many random live performers. I stayed for a while. Our hotel was very pretty. I took a photo of the alley below us, and of our water landing... which was not for passengers, but for supplies and cargo, delivered bright and early in the morning. By late morning, the gondolas were using that byway on their little circular route.


Inevitable museum is inevitable. In this case the Museo Correr, which included Napoleon's apartments. That beautiful blue thing...? Is a table from his living space. Can you imagine eating on that? Good lord.

My sister, determined to see a perfume museum, took us off the beaten trail guided only by the vague directions of our local guide and a map. This took us into the parts of Venice that weren't so tourist-clean. I liked seeing them. It made the city feel more real. Our guide told us that Venice was mostly a tourist town now; many people left during some kind of job recession forty or fifty years ago. She herself commuted from the mainland on the train. "There's just more work there."

I found myself having frequent thoughts like that. If you live in a place like this, where you can't really grow the city at all... where do you find work? Catering to tourists, and then... what? What kind of modern industry can you support on an island like this? Maybe, I thought, the information economy will give some opportunities to people living here. But in all the time I was walking around, I didn't see anyone working on a computer. Lots and lots of cafes... not so many people working on tech stuff. I assumed it was out of sight, but I did a lot of walking and paying attention, and didn't see much of anything beyond shops for tourists, and those the same four or five shops over and over.


We did find the perfume museum (which also had a small section devoted to fashion) and it was well-worth the walk because it was full of rooms where you could smell the constituent parts of perfumes! Not just a room with essential oils, but one with the actual physical bits of bark and root and leaf. We got to smell ALL THE THINGS. It was fantastic. After so many museums devoted to seeing, one where you mostly got the benefit by smelling was amazing.


Venice is also known for its glass. This man was making, in less than 30 seconds, a gorgeous horse. After that we wandered down the stairs, and again... there is the water.

There was also a guy giving us a hard sell on glass. Venice was built on commerce; that's obviously a long, unbroken lineage.


I think the highlight of my Venetian trip was seeing a string ensemble perform (in period costume!) several Baroque works, mostly Vivaldi. The first half of the concert was this collection of five women and a single man (playing, very demurely, what sounded like a harpsichord in the back). We were seated very near the front, which allowed me to observe the interplay between them, and their facial expressions, and their personalities. The first violin was a stern professional; the second violin, retiring and a little moody; the viola-player was full of merriment, and the cello player beside her sardonic but amused. The double-bass player was unflappable, calm, and reserved. They worked well together. In fact, the piece I was least looking forward to (Pachelbel's inevitable Canon in D) was my favorite because of how they worked together, passing one another the parts as if giving the most wonderful gifts. The chemistry was astonishing and heartwarming... which made it fascinating when the male violinist appeared for the second half of the program, the Four Seasons. It was like throwing a rock in a pond. They didn't hate him, but he was obviously an alien thing to them. A musician of shocking talent, but very much the ham, and them rolling their eyes behind his back... I caught the viola player doing it twice, and she met my eyes and noticed me noticing it, and the second time I almost made her break out laughing.

I loved it.

I've seen a lot of live music in my time, but never from a distance where I could perceive people's facial expressions. That concert changed for me forever how I understand, viscerally and emotionally, the relationship component of ensemble music.


Leaving Venice, again by water taxi to the train station. The sun on the water. Traffic jams. There are even "street" lights. "Are there really traffic jams?" I ask. "Oh yes. There are police boats. Everyone slows down. Or someone stops for some reason and you get backed up..."

I have been wondering all this time about logistics. The streets are so narrow. How do services get anywhere? It is while leaving that I spot a "fire station," complete with garage for "fire boats." But then... once the boats reach the nearest landing, they are stuck with those tiny alleys... how do ambulances get anywhere? I can't imagine.

Amusingly, we are followed at one point by a DHL boat. Mail is delivered, like cargo and supplies, on the water. Most of the deliveries happen early in the day, though.

I have seen Venice, thus, and find... I still can't believe that it exists. It reminds in my mind as the improbable city. Created, apparently as a refuge from barbarians on the mainland, transformed from a fishing society to a mercantile trading one, which went on to become an empire, and which fell and became... a place for tourists like me to come and gawk and marvel at what it must have been like to live here. It made sense long ago. Shoehorned into modern sensibilities, it makes less sense. And yet of all the places we went on our trip, it's one of the two I was most fond of. I don't feel like I saw the real Venice, but I felt, often, that Venice itself wasn't sure where the real Venice was. It wore its mask of commerce, ancient and well-practiced by now, and if it was selling the experience of a historical city rather than glass and lace and spices from afar, well... who can tell behind the mask?

Rome, next.

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In case you can't read it, it's "Freedom. Exploration. Independence. Passion." Four seems a nice number!

I am drawing a lot lately. This feels weird, like I'm goofing off from real, paying work. So bizarre. Stop that, brain. -_-

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Yesterday was a kind of discombobulated day. I wanted to paint, but the printer I use to transfer my pencil work onto finishing paper decided it was no longer functional unless I spent $200 on missing ink and maintenance cartridges. So in a fit of pique, I took the picture of Reese I did a while back with me to the coffee shop to try painting it. This is how I discovered that drawing directly onto the paper (and more importantly, erasing) had removed most of the sizing on it. This is... not good. At all.

I kept going anyway, but I don't know how I'm going to finish it. Here's where I stopped.

Yesterday's discussion about how the Tarot comes across as menacing to more than one of us (surprise! We are not alone!) made my mind wander back to an old, old list I did that associated all the Pelted races with a particular virtue. I don't know where that is, but the idea when I did it was to make it easy for people to grok each race instantly.

I liked that idea, though one word seems harsh. The Learn Tarot site gives you four paragraphs per Major Arcana card, and that stuck in my head, and I got this:

I tried to cram in some symbolism I thought appropriate to the Seersa: that's Joy on the bottom, the first created Pelted. Some ships and the map of the Alliance on the right (there are a lot of Seersa in Fleet). The glyphs on the left are from the Seersan language. The guy in the center is holding a data tablet and the history of the Alliance. If you can't read it, the words say "Communication. History. Diplomacy. Protection."

I did this at a small size (for me), of 9x12. I am trying not to be daunted by the idea of doing 20+ of them...! But I kind of like this better than the Tarot idea. And I guess you could still use them as cards, given that they have meanings? What do you think?

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I mentioned yesterday that I had taken a stab at a Pelted Tarot "back in the day" (by which I mean 15+ years ago). Here's that list:

The Fool -- Pelipenele
The Magician -- Joseph Shandlin
The High Priestess -- Jan
The Empress -- Liolesa
The Emperor -- Matthew Brighthaven
The High Priest -- Kellen
The Lovers -- Carevei and Rayne
The Chariot -- Dylan
Strength -- Alysha
The Hermit -- Hirianthial
The Wheel of Fortune -- a petri dish
Justice -- Jahir
The Hanged Man -- Lisinthir
Death -- Margeaux
Temperance -- The Slave Queen
The Devil -- The Emperor
The Tower -- the exodus from Earth
The Star -- Laelkii
The Moon -- Sediryl
The Sun -- Vasiht'h
Judgement -- Reese (with Allacazam)
The World -- Zafiil

I am kind of fascinated by these choices (Jahir as Justice? Reese as Judgment?) while others are interestingly apt (Peli from "Rosettes and Ribbons" as the Fool, the petri dish, the exodus from Earth). Some of them are going to be completely opaque (Zafiil and Jan and Dylan are from unpublished books). Others, as you can see, persist across years (Alysha as Strength, Liolesa as the Empress).

I am not promising I'm going to do a Tarot. But a couple things come to mind. First, and easist, it's fun to do art prompts. My brain gets tired, and talking with you all about these things shakes loose some ideas. And second, my art advisor suggested I start working smaller. Smaller art can be finished faster, which means you can do more of it. And that means I get more practice. I badly need practice. I haven't drawn daily for... years now. And it shows. *so embarrassed*

So yesterday I started messing with this!

Alysha as Strength was a no-brainer, so I did this one first. (That's the Alliance flag in her hand.) I started out drawing her nude just to get her body-shape right and then thought 'crud, why do I have to put clothes on her.' As usual. -_-

Lots of people suggested Lisinthir as the Hanged Man, but after reading the symbolism on this website recommended to me on twitter (where are you, Twitterperson? That was a great website!), I decided it worked much better for the Emperor instead. Which also prevents us from ending up with the Emperor as the Emperor card, which is... obvious. And thus harder to make interesting. -_-

I can't decide where to put Liolesa. She's a mind-mage herself, though of a kind rarely understood: the Pattern-sensers that other people might consider precognizant. A "seer", like Jahir, but far more advanced. For now I put her in the Wheel of Fortune, with the Pattern and an orrery. I also decided at this point that making square cards would be more fun. And easier on me because it would be easier to make all the dimensions consistent. >.>

Temperance for Jahir didn't work until I put Vasiht'h in too (with data tablet; Jahir has a book). This card has no reverse. If you get the Jahir side, you get Jahir-like readings. If you get the Vasiht'h side, you get Glaseah-like stuff.

Petrov over on Twitter pointed out that Tarot cards have a reversed and normal meaning, and that square cards made it possible for us to have cards lying on their sides—how do we know then whether they're reversed or not? I said "maybe we can design the backs to make the tops and bottoms obvious (but not tell which is which), like this." But a few other people chimed in and said how they've used square or circular decks before, and read the cards so that the orientation gives additional information (so, say, cards pointing at other cards, clockwise, refer to them, or to the future, etc). I thought that was really cool! So now my jury is still out on whether the backs of the cards should be leading.

And finally, some non-Tarot doodling:

Zootopia Jaguar. I had to try the art style. WOW. MUCH EYE. SO SHINY.

Always Falling, from the romance novels. "Severe but androgynous" is awfully hard to aim for. This was my attempt at a model sheet, and the happiest I've been with its face shape.

And finally, Sediryl, her virtual dog, Maia, and the Visionary behind her. Playing with different aspect ratios.

As you can see, I am really, really, really rusty. Sitting outside drinking bad coffee (unavoidable observation after having spent a week in Italy), I reflected on how grateful I was that I now have time to blow the rust off those skills. That's all because of you folks: my Patreon patrons, my readers who buy my books, you shoppers at Etsy, those of you tipping on serials. You have made this possible. I am super grateful, and hope you enjoy the sketch uploads accordingly. *hugs*

More today! So if you have more suggestions, I'm all ears. I am tempted to take each card and post about it separately, and do a bunch of different sketches/discussions/etc... Might be fun for all of us!

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The e-book price-fixing anti-trust settlement moniez are being disbursed, and you may have some! Amazon should have sent you an email, or if you didn't get it, you can check your balance on this page. I hear that other retailers are also preparing such emails/info. If, like me, you have come into a tidy little package, it is definitely the right time to... buy more e-books! And that means we should have a recommendation party!

To satisfy Marketer Jaguar, I will first say that if you had some of my books on your wishlist, that's not a bad place to start. (Or if you'd like to browse my catalog, see if there are any gaps to fill in, you can do so here. New people should start on the where should I start page).

Having done that, though, I can rec some recent reads if your settlement money is burning a hole in your virtual pocket!

Song of the Summer King: Excellent MG to YA to "still good for adults" epic fantasy starring gryfons (with dragons and other talking animals). A new complete quadrilogy. Jess will convince you her characters are real, and their quests and struggles are timeless.

Going Concerns: A mystery in a world of quasi-Victorian magic, animal and human races, and low magic. Good stuff. Watts was my first editor, he knows how to write.

Sand of Bone: Gritty military fantasy. Will wreck you with its believability. Good stuff from Blair, on sale and the sequel just came out last week!

Near + Far: A collection of short fiction by Cat Rambo, who is a master of the form. If you want to learn something about creating devastating and fantastic stories at this length, you need this book (or another of her collections).

The Leaves of October: This book, told from the viewpoint of alien trees, remains one of my favorite pieces of science fiction (and one of the stories that influenced my own writing).

Your turn now! What should we all go buy? If you've read something great lately, tell us! If you're looking for something to read, ask! :)

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Since it's obvious I'm going to need several days to recover from traveling, this seems a good time to bring out idancewithlife's game idea: that we brainstorm a Pelted Tarot! I actually started a Pelted Tarot 20 years ago, but that was long before any of the modern storylines/characters. Throwing it out and starting fresh would be good. Particularly with your suggestions!

This is not, by the way, a promise that I'm going to draw any of these. Though I might. I dunno. We'll see. >.>

For those of you who aren't familiar with the cards off-hand, here are the Major Arcana cards:

The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
The Fool

And the Minor Arcana are divided into four suits: swords, wands (or batons), coins (pentacles), and cups, and have ten numbered cards and four court cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page).

So who do you think should go where? And what symbols/species/etc should be used for the suits? I'm all ears!

(Oh, and for reference, the existing books!)

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Sometimes when I go offline I'm home and ignoring the world. Sometimes... I'm not.

In this case, I wasn't! And have returned after an epic trip to Italy with my parents, sister, husband and daughter!

More later, when I'm not so wiped out after the trip home. Yow. 10 hours in one plane, another 2 in another, for a total of 21 hours awake consecutively. So tired still. -_-


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If we color at all, Daughter and I do it at night, when it's quiet and we're at a loss for final activities before bed. There's usually quiet music playing—this time it was Pink Martini (have a sample!)—and the lights are a golden pool in the kitchen nook but drop into dim warmth everywhere else.

Most of the commercial coloring books are too similar to one another to grab my attention, an endless series of mandalas and abstract or floral patterns. This one, though, which doubles as a devotional, caught my eye. So I took it out while Daughter sat with me with her puffy paint to make her own artworks and we talked about feelings, and about quotes. She brought out one of her girlpower doodle books and read me all the quotes in it, about believing in yourself and being strong.

"Which quote do you think is better?" I asked then. "Those quotes, or this one?"

She looks over my shoulder. Love never gives up.

"Yours," she says decisively.

"Do you have any ideas why?" I ask.

"Because it's about everyone, not just yourself."

I nod, content, and we continue, until the night grows advanced and it is time for bed.

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Current Music: Pink Martini - Autrefois

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Child and I are talking over a drawing she is making of how she wants to redecorate her room. I am coloring; she is penciling in her bed, her cabinet, where she wants her books. We are content, listening to music. She is telling me about her plans.

"There's a thing I want to do," she said. "I saw it on youtube, this other girl did it. She had her name in letters over her bed. It was hashtag adorable. I mean really, hashtag cute."

"It was, huh," I said, charmed.

"Yes, I want to do that!"

"Sounds like a nice plan," I said, and she returned to filling in her design, leaving me to ponder this new permutation of modern language. Hashtag adorable! What made something "hashtag adorable" versus just "adorable"? It implies to me that it's so adorable it's worth sharing with others.

I love this. Some of it feels far too artificial, of course: that sense that we're eternally either on the social media stage or thinking about ourselves as on it. But the basic impulse, the desire to share cool stuff with people (or warn them about toxic stuff) is utterly human. And I find I like the idea of separating feelings you feel by yourself versus feelings you want to share with others. The hashtag method might be new, but it's an old lesson: there's stuff you feel that you keep inside, and stuff you feel that you don't, and learning to slot your reactions into those categories is important, if you want to be a functional part of society.

So you go, language. Evolve mightily! Hashtag awesome!


Later we are talking about summer camps, since we have decided to try a few new ones this year. She has adamantly vetoed anything educational, and she is not wild about the camps where you swim all day. I suggest a different camp and she hates that one too, but won't articulate why. She just does.

"But if you tell me why, then that's good," I say. "Because it means I won't put you in a camp that's just like it. Without knowing what you hate about that camp, I won't know what to avoid in other camps!"

"I just hate it!" she says.

"But what about it?" I say. "The theme? The location? The activities? For instance, you could say 'I don't want to do any princess camps because I don't like princess stuff.'"

"Definitely no princess camp!" she exclaims. "I hate princess stuff!"

"I know," I begin, but she's gathering steam.

"I mean, princess stuff is terrible! It's great for the princess, but everyone else... it's bad for them. Because the princess can say 'you do that' and 'you do this for me' and they have to do it and that's awful! The only person who has a good time is the princess because she gets whatever she wants and everyone has to do what she says! She has all the powers and the money and, it's... it's like a PYRAMID SCHEME!"

"A what!" I exclaim, astonished.

"A pyramid scheme!" she says. "Like when they tell you you'll have lots of money but you have to pay money to have money! Being a princess is like that! For other people! The princess is the only one who has everything and it's because of everyone else!"

"Where did you learn about pyramid schemes??" I ask my 8-year-old daughter, astonished and trying very hard not to laugh.

"I don't know," she says, staring out the window. "Maybe TV?"

What is she watching in her grandmother's room! I wonder.

"So no princesses," she finishes, stubborn.

"No," I say to my very egalitarian American daughter. "No princesses."

Mommy has been schooled. >.>

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I've heard here and there about Machi Koro, a Japanese city-building card game. Since we're always looking for games of enough complexity that they can be replayed without having super-difficult concepts, I thought I'd pick this one up.

Verdict: Super fun!

The story is that you're mayor of a town and you have to build four landmarks to win. You do this by earning cash from cards you buy that "activate" on dice rolls. Everyone starts out with three coins and two of those establishments (a wheat field that gives everyone a coin if anyone rolls a 1 and a bakery that gives you a coin if you roll a 2 or a 3). After that you have to decide what to buy in order to earn enough income to build your four landmarks.

The play complexity comes from the fact that different kinds of cards earn income in different ways. There are cards that will give you income if someone else rolls a number (and they're the ones who have to pay you!). There are cards that earn you income if only you roll them, and from the bank. There are cards that are multiplied by the effects of other cards (so if you have a furniture factory, it gives you money based on how many forests you have).

All this is complicated by the landmarks, which have their own special powers. One of them allows you to roll two dice instead of one, which gives you access to higher numbered cards.

We found this game easy to play right out of the box. Plus, it finishes up in 20-30 minutes, which is great if you don't have Settlers of Catan levels of patience. It has a maximum of 4 players, but plays great with 2 (something not all 4-player games manage), and while the age range suggests 10+, my 8-year-old had no trouble with any of it.

You can find it here on Amazon. Please buy it there; it was twice as much at Target. o_O

Anyway, cool game! I'm planning on getting the expansions. (Game recs always welcome for family games I can play with Daughter.)

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